Spotted seatrout in net closeup.” photo: Tim Donovan/FWC, Florida Fish & Wildlife

July 12, 2018; Cronkite News (Arizona PBS)

Environmental advocate organizations have been working overtime to hold onto regulations to protect wildlife, plant life, and human beings. Their latest challenge comes via proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), which was signed into law in 1973 by Richard Nixon. In February 2017, we reported on the Listing Reform Act, which means to add a financial review of the cost of adding species to the endangered list. Now, nine bills have been presented by the Congressional Western Caucus to mitigate and purportedly modernize the ESA.

The bills have been endorsed by a long list of stakeholders, such as American Loggers Council, American Petroleum Institute, American Farm Bureau Federation, American Exploration & Mining Association, and National Association of Home Builders, and the Agribusiness & Water Council of Arizona. Simultaneously, the bills have been derided by nonprofits like the Sierra Club and the Center of Biological Diversity. The Center, which sees itself as “an advocate for all life on the globe,” has called the suggested legal changes “extinction bills.”

Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director for the Center, called out one of the nine in the package, the STORAGE Act, in particular. The STORAGE Act amends regulations to remove some protected places. It would “prohibit designation as critical habitat of certain areas in artificial water diversion or delivery facilities”—in other words, areas around man-made dams. Greenwald says this exemption is “callous,” due to their role as vital habitats for species like salmon and yellow-billed cuckoos.

Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ), a sponsor of the STORAGE Act, believes the ESA does not serve everyone, because ranchers and farmers, among others, are not included in the process, including. “Right now, locals and private entities really have a prejudice against them,” he stated.

Another of the bills would allow the Interior secretary to remove species that are on the endangered species list if an “objective, measurable scientific study” from states, researchers, or others demonstrates the species has recovered. The director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, Sandy Bahr, believes that approving the bill, sponsored by Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), would empower local interest groups to delist endangered species, “just trying to get rid of something that is an inconvenience to them.”

“These decisions are supposed to be based on science and not on the politics,” Bahr said. “What Biggs is proposing is to inject more politics into the protection, or lack thereof, relative to endangered species. I would not trust that they (local groups) would be presenting reports or information that was based on the science.”

The caucus members insist that the bills are aimed at bringing decision-making authority back to local stakeholders, in the belief that Washington DC cannot know the on-the-ground issues in their districts. They also displayed a lack of trust in the ESA, saying that less than three percent of the listed endangered species have recovered enough to be removed from protection.

Greenwald, naturally, defends the Act, stating, “It has staved off extinction for 99 percent of the species under its care and put hundreds on the road to recovery.” The proposed bills would “absolutely push wildlife over the edge and into extinction,” he said.

The Mexican gray wolf is a touchpoint for those on both sides of the issue. Ranchers had hunted the gray wolf to the point that there were only five left; scientists stepped in and bred them. Now, there are 114 wolves, and ranchers are complaining the wolves are bothering livestock again. Gosar said, “Ranchers and farmers have lost livestock, have been non-compensated, and looking at the Mexican gray wolf, taking it into different areas that it was never part of the territorial aspect.”

“The gray wolf is an example of why the Endangered Species Act should be stronger, not weaker, as they are proposing,” said Bahr. It’s important, she observes, that it is species are protected in their own habitats from declining so far that the only way to save them is to breed them in captivity.

Of course, Gosar says he wants to protect animals, too—as a source of tourism revenue.

“Arizona’s got lots of wonderful things, and vistas, and we want to make sure that the critters are there too, because that’s what draws all our tourists from around the world to see,” Gosar said. “When local people are invested in that and they’re a part of the recovery, and the success story, it’s even better.”

If these bills pass, will species be lost to extinction? Nonprofit advocates are not taking any chances.—Marian Conway